15 Photography Hacks to MacGyver Your Way to Beautiful Images
By: Ryan Miller
Studio photography is just as much about engineering ridiculous ways to make the impossible look effortlessly possible as it is your skill behind the lens.
Below are some cheap solutions and photography hacks we’ve used over the years to help MacGyver our way through a lot of studio setups.
1) Use a guitar strap for a camera strap.
Camera straps are generally terrible, and the one that came with your camera is even worse.
Think of it like the transparent plastic cover that comes on your brand-new cellphone; simply remove it, throw in the trash, and replace it with the real thing.
Companies offer various solutions from shoulder-mounted quick-release clips to full-body chest rigs, but these tend to be overengineered, expensive options that are overkill for most photographers.
A better, more cost-effective solution is to buy a guitar strap ($10), two key rings ($1 for a 10-pack), and carabiners ($3 for a locking set), and you’ve got a comfortable, durable, cross-body camera strap system.
It takes the weight off your neck, can be easily adjusted, and comfortably holds the weight of your camera. You can also do a totally sick, around-the-body spin move like the guitarist from your favorite 80s hair metal band.
Plus, you can give out those eight other key rings as stocking stuffers for Christmas – a clear win-win!
Not to say the more expensive and complicated rigs don’t have their uses, but for most amateur and professional photographers alike, simple is always better.
2) Use vanilla frosting, powdered sugar & food coloring for shots of ice cream.
One of the biggest hacks we found came from time spent engineering ways to photograph deliciously creamy looking ice cream under intensely hot lighting without turning into a puddle (or getting electrocuted in the process).
If you need to photograph ice cream, try using vanilla frosting, lots of powdered sugar, and even food coloring to make flavor-swirled ice cream treats. Crisco has a wonderful texture as well that looks just like the real thing, but it only comes in “family”-sized tubs.
Cut some fresh fruit, shake some sprinkles, throw on some chocolate shavings, and pick out a poorly whittled wooden spoon and a rustic (that’s Latin for “I have no idea what I’m doing”) bowl, and you’ve got a setup for success.
Just, you know, don’t eat it.
3) When including cold foods/drinks in shots, wait until the last minute to put them in, or they will melt.
If you have to include the actual product in a shot (especially for brand purposes) and can’t MacGyver your way through it with vanilla frosting and powdered sugar, inserting the object at last minute will preserve the product.
4) Blu Tack. Blu Tack EVERYTHING.
Ahhhh, Blue Tack: cheap, reusable, lasts practically forever if you keep it sealed up, and can be found at any office supply store.
Use it to stand up things with weird centers of gravity during studio work.
Use it to stand up other things to hold those things when you want to make your own gravity.
Use it to attach things to walls when you don’t have the proper tripod to do a straight-down shot.
Use it when you don’t want to tear into gaffer’s tape with your teeth like a filthy animal in front of clients.
Glob it around the eraser end of a pencil and use it to pick up dirt and particles from your lens and sensor because you were careless and let dirt and particles into your lens and sensor.
If you don’t have gloves, roll it in your hands to remove natural oils to reduce smudges when working with glass or glossy surfaces.
Dab it on those same glossy surfaces to remove smudges because you didn’t handle them with gloves.
Use it to hold tiny objects from blowing away in the wind for outdoor shoots. The list goes on and on.
5) Always have clear packaging tape on hand.
Like Blue Tack, we’ve found clear packaging tape to be a must-have for photography. Think of it as your other best friend.
Use it balled up to keep doors open at the perfect angle or under things to help them achieve just the right sitting position.
6) Use fishing wire to prop up objects.
The Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak of the photography world, fishing wire is a devilishly simple solution for propping up objects and is a breeze to edit out in Photoshop from backgrounds and subjects.
When you have to take a shot of something small like a metal stamped washer or the spring that goes in the clicker of a pen, that aforementioned Blu Tack can be a bit overkill and mess with your surface shadow.
Simply tie them to a piece of fishing wire and attach it to a boom stand (or the ceiling) above your object and out of frame, and it makes for a wonderfully unobtrusive setup tool for product-based photography.
7) Use apple/grape/cranberry juice diluted with water to look like wine.
Let’s be honest: wine is expensive. And some work environments may prohibit the presence of alcohol on property, so it’s your best bet to combine a fruit juice of some kind with water to give the illusion of wine. No one will be able to tell the difference!
8) Use the right size arrangement of props.
When you arrange props on things, it’s better to place taller items in the center and shorter on the outside because it feels more natural to the eye.
9) Remove dust and dirt with horsehair paint brushes.
Horsehair paint brushes are cheap and easy to find. Simply head to your local hardware or craft supplies store (or order some paint brushes online) and lightly spray with them furniture polish (note: any furniture polish will do) to easily remove dust and dirt from your props.
10) Use large white reflectors to keep the surroundings out of the image.
When setting up a large white reflector, shine a soft light on it in the reflection of a mirror.
11) Who needs flowers when you have weeds?
Don’t waste time buying a freshly-cut bouquet of tulips, roses, or whatever flower tickles your fancy when you can just go outside and pick a few weeds. They make great vase fillers!
12) Use a sheet of paper as a light diffuser for your flash.
Again: free, easy to find, and the perfect way to diffuse the light.
13) Point your flash up at the ceiling so that it reflects onto your subject for softer light.
This simple trick gets rid of a bright glare and provides the softer light you need for high-quality photography.
14) Use any piece of large, white material as a makeshift reflector.
We’ve found this to be helpful if you don’t have your own reflector (a common issue that plagues many businesses).
15) Need a misted look? Use glycerin mixed with water in a spray bottle.
This will help you achieve a misted look that will stay and not drip down.
P.S. BONUS HACK! A videography tip from Christian Pokrywka, our videographer/graphics specialist:
If you’re on a shoot and you forgot to get a soundbite that is needed for a project, have the subject use the “Voice Memo” feature on their phone and go into a closet to record the voiceover you need.
*Co-written by Mallory Hiser